In focus

From Fool Me Once to Safe: How the Harlan Coben universe took over Netflix

Netflix’s takes on the novels of American thriller writer Harlan Coben are a hit with UK viewers, despite some very mixed reviews. What’s the secret, asks Katie Rosseinsky, to their appeal?

Tuesday 09 January 2024 08:27 GMT
Thriller: Harlan Coben’s mystery ‘Fool Me Once’ has topped Netflix’s UK chart
Thriller: Harlan Coben’s mystery ‘Fool Me Once’ has topped Netflix’s UK chart (Vishal Sharma/Netflix)

About 15 minutes into the first episode of Fool Me Once, Michelle Keegan’s Maya gets pepper sprayed in the face by her daughter’s childminder, after the pair have come to blows over a hidden camera disguised as a digital photo frame. I practically whooped with glee. Not because Keegan’s character, a newly widowed army veteran, seemed particularly deserving of comeuppance (she’d just buried her murdered husband, for goodness sake), but because the casual inclusion of a scene so objectively bonkers so early on in this eight-part Netflix series felt like a good omen. From here, things surely would only get sillier and more credulity-stretching. In short, I was going to get precisely what I wanted from the streamer’s latest Harlan Coben adaptation.

Fool Me Once trailer

If you’re somehow unfamiliar with the oeuvre of Coben, whose name hovers over the title cards of his TV shows to remind us who’s the boss, then your Netflix algorithm is certainly more discerning than mine. All you need to know is this: Coben is the vastly successful American author of 35 mystery novels, and is a fixture on bestseller lists around the world. As a student at Amherst College in Massachusetts, he was a member of the same fraternity as Dan Brown, writer of The Da Vinci Code and overlord of the airport thriller.

Coben’s books tend to take place in monied communities in New York and neighbouring New Jersey, his home state, rather than in dusty museum archives and crypts, but he shares a taste for cliffhangers and bold twists with his old classmate (“If you don’t like twists and turns, I’m not your guy,” he told The Scotsman last year). In 2018, he signed a five-year mega-deal with Netflix, allowing the streamer to adapt 14 of his novels into English and foreign-language TV series. Fool Me Once is the fourth English production, following Safe (2018), The Stranger (2020) and Stay Close (2022), but there are also shows in French, Spanish and Polish.

These dramas are inevitably chock full of gasp-inducing, head-scratching moments (like poor Michelle being temporarily blinded with an aerosol). And instead of being set against their original backdrop (the New York tri-state area) the English-speaking adaptations of Coben’s work all take place in the northwest of England. Their exact location is never spelled out in the scripts (“We think it works better to make it more generic,” executive producer Nicola Shindler has said) but the gratuitous shots of the Runcorn-Widnes Bridge are a massive giveaway. Transplanting essentially American characters into a very British setting gives proceedings an uncanny, slightly artificial feel. Keegan’s character spends most of her time training amateurs to drive helicopters and at the shooting range, which doesn’t ring entirely true. Sometimes the character names are jarring, albeit in an enjoyable way. In The Five, an original drama that Coben created for Sky back in 2016, pre-Netflix deal, the actor Lee Ingleby plays a man named Slade; perhaps his fictional parents were just devoted fans of Noddy Holder and co.

The critical verdict on these adaptations is as up, down and frankly all over the place as some of Coben’s wilder narrative impulses. They’ve been praised as the ultimate guilty pleasure (in a four-star review of Fool Me OnceThe Telegraph claimed its plot “moves like a slinky on steroids”, ie erratically and at speed) and derided as “junk food television” (The i), the TV version of empty calories: stories that are delicious in the moment, but ultimately leave you feeling unsatisfied and a bit grotty. The Independent’s chief TV critic Nick Hilton gave it just one star, predicting that tolerance for its high melodrama “will hinge entirely on your ability to switch off your brain and allow proceedings to wash over you”.

But while they might have divided reviewers, they seem to get a pretty resounding thumbs up from Netflix users. The adaptations regularly crack the streaming platform’s Top 10 on their debut, and Fool Me Once is currently sitting at number one in the UK chart. Are they good, bad, or so bad they’re good? And why are viewers like me so hooked? The average Coben series is an inviting mix of the unpredictable and the enjoyably formulaic, a bit like an Agatha Christie. We know pretty much what we’ve signed up for; we’re just not entirely sure of the particulars of how things will play out. So twisty is his work that once the final end credits have rolled, it is categorically impossible to recall the specifics of each series’ storylines. Instead, they become tangled up into one big, chaotic spiderweb (remember those biology GCSE textbook pictures imagining what webs spun by drugged-up spiders might look like?)

Leading man: Richard Armitage is the undisputed king of the Coben adaptation (Vishal Sharma/Netflix)

The typical plot goes something like this. A woman is, or once was, romantically involved with Richard Armitage, the actor who is the undisputed king of the Harlan Coben TV Universe, with three such series on his CV (“Three’s enough, if not too many!” he told Radio Times last year, to which I say: respectfully, Richard, three is not enough). She is hiding a dark secret, one that connects her to a spate of mysterious disappearances, or a murder investigation that has long gone cold. The Armitage character walks straight into this conspiracy and sets about trying to solve things for himself, usually while pursued by baddies. He is alternately helped and held back by an odd-couple pair of police officers.

For a touch of British Big Little Lies, everyone lives in massive detached homes, and has gorgeous hair that belies their emotional turmoil. There are various convoluted backstories involving childhood games gone wrong, mask-wearing cults or alpacas. Something tends to be awry at the local kids’ football club, where the parents gather to speak in exposition from the sidelines. And if there’s a beloved British comedy star on the cast list – Jennifer Saunders in The Stranger, Eddie Izzard in Stay Close – the odds of them making it to the final episode are high.

Everyone lives in massive detached homes, and has gorgeous hair that belies their emotional turmoil

In Fool Me Once, there’s a slight shake up: this time, the Armitage character is a dead husband who appears in flashback (or, at least, he’s supposed to be dead – but he still crops up in footage recorded on the sneaky photo frame camera after his funeral). And it’s his widow Maya, played by Keegan, who must do the amateur sleuthing. She’s also burdened by secrets of her own. They relate to her time in the army, we learn, and place her at the mercy of a whistleblower called “Corey the Whistle”, who writes a blog from a shack in the forest. And some adaptations don’t feature Armitage at all.

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In 2018’s Safe, it’s Dexter star Michael C Hall who plays the moody bloke with the dead wife, doing his best British accent. The Five has a quartet of protagonists, who are shaken to learn that the DNA of their long-missing friend has turned up at a crime scene. What they all share, though, is a fast pace and the sort of stress-inducing episode endings that have you pressing “next” against your better judgement. That’s testament not just to Coben’s mad plots but also to screenwriter Danny Brocklehurst’s command of the source material; Brocklehurst has worked on all five English-language Coben adaptations, so has had plenty of practice when it comes to shaping these stories into moreish nuggets.

Star-studded: Cush Jumbo played a leading role in 2022 series ‘Stay Close’ (James Stack)

Trope-y tales like these mean that the vast line-up of characters are often pretty broadly drawn. But they’re consistently elevated by some of Britain’s most recognisable television performers. As well as Keegan and Armitage, Fool Me Once also features Joanna Lumley as Maya’s wealthy mother-in-law, an acid-tongued matriarch who wafts around the family estate swathed in cashmere scarves, and Sherwood’s Adeel Akhtar as a police officer who keeps mysteriously passing out at the wheel of his car. Stay Close starred Cush Jumbo, who’s more often found performing Shakespeare in the West End.

These shows are, let’s face it, probably not the most challenging dramatic material that they’ve tackled, but it’s fun to see which stars will be called up for the next production, like a thespy form of jury service. In fact, with their impressive cast lists, mega mansions and ridiculous narrative curveballs, they’re essentially a fun-house mirror version of your average ITV psychological thriller, buoyed by a Netflix budget to amp up the escapism. No wonder British audiences can’t get enough of this all-American author. Long may the Harlan-verse continue – and here’s hoping Richard Armitage is on the phone to his agent right now.

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